Sunday, December 1, 2013

Stumbling on the Edge of Magnificence

(Picture from here.)

There is a lot to be excited about in science lately. Too much for me to have an entire post devoted to one thing. So here's a quick overview of some fun things.

There is new evidence that humans were in the Americas as far back as 30,000 years ago. This comes from a cave full of giant sloth bones found in Uruguay. There's been some evidence before (cited in the article) but this is even more of it. For a long time now there's been cracks in the idea that humans came over from Siberia via the Bering land bridge not much more than 13,000 years ago-- the Clovis people, named after the spearpoints found in Clovis, New Mexico. The researchers in Uruguay think that theseinhabitants  may have come over from Africa. A sequence of the genome of a 24,000 year old Siberian body has suggested that there are Eurasian relatives to the Native Americans, further complicating the puzzle.

New Lithium-Sulfur batteries might actually solve the power storage problem of renewable energy. This has been something I've been following over the last  few years. Lithium-ion batteries are expensive and don't have the energy density to be really practical for things like cars. But Li-S batteries are a different story. They have significantly better energy density. But they start to fail after a small number of charges. This new research might solve that issue.

There is a spacecraft from India making its way to Mars. Mangalyaan is going to look for methan. Of course, there are people who are upset that India, with its widespread poverty, is going to put its money into a Mars mission. Probably the same people who don't like it that we put a minuscule amount of money into looking at Saturn because we have poor people in Arkansas. To heck with them. Go India.

China is getting ready to launch a rover to the moon today. The moon will Chinese someday. I'm certain of it.This may not be a bad thing.

A 4.4 billion meteorite uncovered by Bedouins looks to be a relic of the ancient Martian crust. Part of the conclusions from studying this meteorite's composition is that Mars was not hit by an ancient planetoid a long time ago. But if that's true they're going to have to come up with a different explanation for Mars' weird shape.

One of the new potential uses for graphene is to be used in the manufacture of condoms. Better condoms means more condom use. Graphene enhanced condoms will feel better, be stronger and, hopefully, lasts longer in the wallet.

The ISS has launched a tiny satellite into orbit. The satellite is about 12"x4"x4" and weighs about 5 pounds. The satellite is intended to test a new de-orbit technique known as an "exo-parachute." The article doesn't say how the satellite was launched. One wonders if one of the astronauts just threw it out the window.

There's a puzzle at the heart of nuclear physics. If you measure the diameter of a proton by one method set you get an answer. If you measure it by a different method you get a completely different method. One researcher has suggested that this my be due to quantum gravity. The first method set is two fold. First by using energy levels derived from hydrogen spectroscopy. Second by electron scattering. Both of these get an answer of about 0.88 femtometers. But in 2010, scientists tried experiments using a muon (a negatively charger particle about 200 times the mass of an electron) instead of an electron. They got 0.842 femtometers. That's a big difference. One researcher is suggesting the difference is due to the muon's greater mass. He suggests that the weak attractive force between the nucleus and the electron-equivalent is actually the quantum representation of gravity at the small scale. If so, it's a big leap towards the unified field theory.

Finally, everybody knows crows are smart. Some have likened them to primates on the wing. New neurobiology research has given some insight into how they're that smart. After all, birds do not have a neocortex like mammals-- it developed after we split off from the line that developed into birds. In addition, whatever crows are using to be smart it's operating in a fraction of the size of a mammalian brain. A crow's brain isn't much bigger than your thumbnail.

They appear to use a structure called the nidopallium caudolaterale, a collection of nerve cells in the back of the bird brain. This article suggests that though the structure is embryologically completely different from the pre-frontal cortex of the mammalian brain, it may function similarly. This might mean a common underlying neurobiological basis of intelligence.

The above said, I find myself a little discouraged. I love science. Part of science, though, is science funding and that is getting more scarce as time goes on. Being an American I'd like my country to be in the forefront of scientific research-- and it is, in general. But if you analyze the funding of science in my country (See here.) the amount going to fundamental and basic research is getting less over time, not more. Most of the funding for research and development is in the development side of things and most of everything is defense related.

We have the tools for the first time in human history to understand the fundamental operations of the natural world. We've started to unlock the primary mechanisms of life, of physics, of our planet and the cosmos. We are learning every year more than we ever knew before.

It's disturbing to me that when such wonderful things are going on, when we are within visible targets of solving most of the world's technological problems such as disease, energy, food production and even climate change, we short change ourselves.

I am not saying we're going to solve these issues tomorrow. But how can we hope to have a healthy world when pharmaceutical companies stop antibiotic research and don't put much in the pipeline to replace it? How can we study the natural world when we pave over it? How can we mitigate climate change when we deny it's happening?

Perhaps there's a new form of natural selection at work, where our species is being tested whether or not we will stumble on the edge of magnificence.

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